Reinventing Liberal Catholicism

Between powerful enemies & dubious allies

Let’s not waste a minute: What is a crisis? What is liberal Catholicism?

Crisis. From the Greek verb krisis, turning point, from krinein, to separate, decide. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a crisis is "a crucial turning point or situation in the course of anything." A crisis is "an unstable condition in political, international, or economic affairs in which an abrupt or decisive change is impending." A crisis is "the point in a story or drama at which hostile forces are in the most tense state of opposition."

Is liberal Catholicism at a crucial turning point? Is liberal Catholicism in an unstable condition, on the verge of significant change, and facing a moment of decision? Has liberal Catholicism reached a point in its history at which hostile forces are gathered and looming?

My answer to those questions is yes.

But what is liberal Catholicism? Note that I have not picked up one definition from the dictionary that might lead us to think of the crisis of liberal Catholicism as "a sudden change in the course of an acute disease." Actually, acute disease is a mild epithet for liberal Catholicism in comparison to some that have been applied to it.

Almost exactly a hundred years ago, a little book appeared in the United States. It was titled simply What Is Liberalism? but in reality it concerned itself extensively with Catholic liberalism or liberal Catholicism. What Is Liberalism? announced itself as a translation and adaptation of a book published thirteen years earlier in Spain, with a title that pretty bluntly answered the question: El liberalismo es pecado—"Liberalism Is a Sin"!

Not merely a sin, but "a greater sin than blasphemy, theft, adultery, homicide, or any other violation of the law of God." Liberalism is "the evil of evils." It is the "offspring of Satan and the enemy of mankind." And since liberalism is pervasive, protean, insidiously seductive, the liberal Catholic is a particularly dangerous "monstrosity," a "traitor and a fool," a pagan at heart, a pawn of the Devil, "less excusable than those liberals who have never been within the pale of the church."

This book, by the way, was officially commended by the Sacred Congregation of the Index, and it remains in print today.

If we proceed, however, a little more, as they say, non-judgmentally, we find that liberal Catholicism is the standard label for the currents of thought and action that arose in the wake of the French Revolution, Napoleon’s remaking of Europe, and the restoration of traditional monarchies. This movement aimed at bringing the church into a constructive engagement with the demands for freedom of thought and expression, constitutional government, democracy, and national self-determination.

Liberal Catholicism always had a complex relationship to liberalism. Liberal Catholicism’s roots were in Romanticism, not the Enlightenment, and it shared in the Romantic period’s reaction, common to both liberals and conservatives, against atomistic rationalism. Liberal Catholicism began with a concern for freedom, not of the individual, not of the dissenting conscience, not of an aspiring class, but of the Catholic church. Its pioneers were not revolutionaries but restorationists, who dreamed of restoring the church’s cultural power. Initially they rebelled not against the church’s use of the throne but against the throne’s intervention in the affairs of the church. Then they rebelled against the alliance of throne and altar because they saw the possibility of reconquering society for Catholic Christianity doomed as long as the church remained chained to bankrupt regimes. Only at the end of this process did they conclude that the freedom necessary for the church to prevail implied the general freedom of all.

Although the relationship between church and state was the leading issue that defined liberal Catholicism, and one that today seems pretty much resolved by Dignitatis humanae, the Vatican Council’s decree on religious liberty, liberal Catholicism was characterized by several other traits.

First, liberal Catholicism rejected the blanket condemnation of the French Revolution, industrialism, and modern liberties. Liberal Catholicism embraced an enormous range of attitudes toward these world-shaking developments. Its ranks included constitutional monarchists and republicans, democrats and aristocratic critics of democracy, nationalists and internationalists, defenders and opponents of laissez-faire economics. And from the Ireland of Daniel O’Connell to England, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, and Poland, each nation had its own special form of liberal Catholicism. What they agreed upon, and what divided them from many fellow believers as well as church authorities, was their insistence on distinctions and nuance in evaluating modernity, rather than sweeping condemnation.

Second, liberal Catholicism believed that change had become not exceptional but the normal condition of life, and that the church should embrace it as an opportunity rather than denounce it as an affliction.

Third, liberal Catholicism had an almost unbounded confidence in the power of truth and its capacity to conquer error if allowed free play on the terrain of open discussion. Perhaps more than anything else, this distinguished liberal Catholics from their adversaries, who were convinced that a weak human nature, inclined to evil, would fall victim to error unless protected by state power, official censorship, church control of education, and tight limits on theological discussion.

Fourth, liberal Catholicism insisted on the relative autonomy of distinct spheres of human activity, whether in politics or religion or science or art and literature. Although ultimately the formed conscience must make a moral judgment, each field has its independent criteria that must also be scrupulously respected. In this conception, liberal Catholicism reflected the modern segmentation of life often associated with secularization. Here, too, was one of the sources of liberal Catholicism’s conflict with church authorities.

Fifth, liberal Catholicism was reluctantly caught up in the impossibility of separating its initial thrust toward evangelization of the culture from internal reform of the church. Most liberal Catholics, for example, began as ultramontane defenders of the papacy, but repeated condemnations by Rome as well as a Burkean belief in preserving local powers against domineering central ones pushed them to oppose papal centralization. Their belief in law and deliberation, representation, and participation as safeguards against arbitrary power ran up against the increasing Roman rule by monarchical fiat. Their moderation clashed with the devotional enthusiasms of the era. Their faith in freedom of inquiry could not be abandoned at the gateway to theology.

As we scarcely need El liberalismo es pecado to remind us, the course of liberal Catholicism never did run smooth. The famous 1864 Syllabus of Errors was triggered by two liberal Catholic congresses held the year before, and its sweeping final condemnation of the idea that "the Roman pontiff can and ought to reconcile and harmonize himself with progress, with liberalism, and with modern civilization" was aimed squarely at liberal Catholics. "Pernicious," "perfidious," "perverse," "a virus," Pius IX liked to term liberal Catholicism. "I have always condemned liberal Catholicism," he told a delegation of French Catholics in 1871, "and I will condemn it again forty times over if it be necessary." "Liberal Catholics are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and the true priest is bound to unmask them," wrote the future Pius X when patriarch of Venice. He sounded the common theme that these people were all the more dangerous precisely because their piety, religious zeal, and charity disguised their venom.

I must admit that I still find it depressing and even embittering to reread this language. It seems insufficient consolation to realize that if the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty and many passages from other conciliar documents had been advanced at that time, they too would have been condemned as perfidious, venomous, pernicious, contaminating, and so on. I can take only slight satisfaction in seeing that the technicalities or ambiguities then seized upon by liberal Catholics to blunt or deflect the authoritative force of the condemnations hurled their way are now seized upon by traditionalists to demonstrate that the recent teachings do not really contradict the past ones.

In any case, the story of liberal Catholicism can be charted in cycles of rise and fall, of liberal initiatives, followed by external attacks and official condemnations, followed by demoralization and fevers of psychological and ideological exacerbation within the ranks of liberal Catholics, culminating in internal disarray and dissolution. Did new movements always rise from the ashes of the old? As often as not, the ashes scattered and the new movements primarily arose, after a significant lag, from the seedbeds of conservative or reactionary milieus tilled and fertilized by new experience. Thus Lamennais and Newman began as conservatives. Then, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when new movements of Christian democracy and social Catholicism emerged in France, Italy, and Germany, they sprang not from the liberal Catholicism of 1825-65 but from intransigent forces pledged to the Syllabus and the restoration of the papal states and headed largely by antiliberal, paternalist, or counterrevolutionary leadership. Cut down or thinned out in the antimodernist crusade, that generation in turn was eventually succeeded by another, but it is worth remembering that a representative figure of interwar liberal Catholicism like Jacques Maritain was, to begin with, a member of the right-wing, protofascist Action Française.

But despite all these twists and turns, detours and delays, did not the story conclude with a happy ending, at Vatican II? Not quite. The terrible reality is that the successive defeats of liberal Catholicism left the church dominated by an antiliberalism that was too often vehement, apocalyptic, and brutal. The Vatican’s inability to distinguish different strands of liberalism and to give a hearing even to forms advocated by its own sons and daughters set a pattern for its unnuanced hostility to all socialisms. In principle, Catholicism opposed aggressive nationalism, militarism, Darwinism, irrationalism, anti-Semitism and, above all, racist neopaganism. Yet absent a robust liberal Catholicism, in nation after nation, Catholicism either aligned itself with many of these antiliberal forces or risked their triumph rather than join hands with liberals or parliamentary socialists.

Thirty years after Vatican II, liberal Catholicism is once again passing through a cycle of official hostility and internal disarray. In a time of crisis-mongering, it is easy to exaggerate the situation. In many sectors of American Catholicism, liberal Catholicism is the dominant outlook—in the academy, in many seminaries and diocesan agencies, among religious educators and liturgists, and, on many questions, in the Catholic population generally. Are these liberal Catholic church workers, people in the trenches, as they like to say of themselves, much affected by some of the tensions and conflicts I am going to describe? Do their moods sink and their energies flag with every week’s alarms sounded in the National Catholic Reporter? Reliable observers tell me no. Mostly they get on about their work and hope for the best.

Nonetheless, liberal Catholics have good reason to feel on the defensive and threatened from both within the church and without. Rome considers us suspect, and has been pursuing a slow but steady policy of discrediting, marginalizing, and replacing us, and now and again, where the cost appears sustainable, rooting us out. The same goal is being similarly pursued by a number of influential, well-funded movements and publications that identify themselves as "orthodox" Catholics, presumably in distinction to the rest of us who are heretics. The most obvious and fundamental working difference between these groups and liberal Catholics turns on the possibility that the pope, despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit, might be subject to tragic error. Liberal Catholics believe that this possibility, which all Catholics recognize as historical fact, did not conveniently disappear at some point in the distant past, like 1950, but was probably the case in the 1968 issuance of Humanae vitae and cannot be ruled out in the refusal of ordination to women.

But if liberal Catholics increasingly feel that they are not wanted in the church, they are hardly more welcome in the ranks of secular liberalism. American political liberalism has shifted its passion from issues of economic deprivation and concentration of power to issues of gender, sexuality, and personal choice. This shift has opened a serious philosophical chasm between liberal Catholicism and a secular liberalism that would demand an illusory stance of state neutrality, maybe even social or cultural neutrality, on all fundamental questions of lifestyle and therefore a relegation of religious claims to private life and, as Stephen Carter has argued, ultimately to trivialization.

Gaping as this chasm may appear, it is not, to my mind, an insoluble problem. That particular form of secular liberalism has produced its own generous supply of communitarian antibodies. Philosophically, liberal Catholicism has plenty of allies.

But practically and politically it is another story. Once trade unionism, regulation of the market, and various welfare measures were the litmus tests of secular liberalism. Later, desegregation and racial justice were the litmus tests. Today the litmus test is abortion, and plenty of liberal Catholics fail it. My views on Roe v. Wade are certainly less welcome in the higher circles of the New York Times or the New York Democratic party than my views on Humanae vitae are in the curia. Liberal Catholicism is increasingly homeless in American politics and culture.

This sense of being increasingly alone and unwelcome in both the church and American public life is strangely mixed with another bewildering experience. In sectors of church life such as liturgy or religious education, liberal Catholics are disconcerted to find ourselves perceived, and not without reason, as the new conservatives, defensive or even triumphal about the positions staked out over the last thirty-five years. And this condition is further destabilized by a new development: the complicated relationship between liberal Catholicism and what is frequently labeled the Catholic left.

There is no way that I can move forward in these remarks without exploring some ambiguities of terminology at this point. Those ambiguities are amply illustrated by a forthcoming book from Indiana University Press, edited by Mary Jo Weaver. It is titled What’s Left? It began as a matching volume to the one edited by Professor Weaver and Scott Appleby of Notre Dame titled Being Right. Originally they were to be part of a tripartite map of American Catholicism, with a third volume covering the centrists, to be called, or so it was joked, Who Cares? Which is perhaps not a bad title, expecially if one drops the question mark and stresses the first word.

On this map, actors like Commonweal and America were evidently assigned to the center. The left seemed to run from the National Catholic Reporter through Call to Action to Catholics for a Free Choice. I think that is a plausible line of division, and I am not one to lose sleep about being assigned to the center, even though I understand that somewhere south of here it is said that the middle of the road is occupied only by a yellow stripe and dead armadillos. The confusion arises because the book What’s Left? is also subtitled "Liberal American Catholics," and Professor Weaver in her introduction manages to appropriate both terms, left and liberal, in a simple two-party scheme that really leaves no way of describing, say, Commonweal or America except negatively, as neither left nor right, neither conservative nor liberal.

Interestingly, most of the book’s contributors do not follow this amalgamation of left and liberal. Rather they consistently prefer "left" or "progressive." And one of them, the historian David O’Brien, explicitly and very usefully distinguishes between the Catholic left and liberal Catholicism.

The confusion here is not simply one of terminology. It is a matter of real-world ambiguity. My argument is that there is a real difference between liberal Catholicism and the Catholic left, but that many Catholics of both sorts are hard put and reluctant to acknowledge this because of shared concerns, a shared history, and the very blurry line of demarcation that in many cases exists within organizations and movements—maybe even within the hearts of individuals!—as much as between them. One consequence of this situation is that liberal Catholicism bears the burden not only of the external opposition and internal fault lines specific to itself but also those that are added because of this lack of clarity about its relationship to the Catholic left.

Some clarity could begin with Professor O’Brien’s acute descriptions. Liberal Catholicism, he writes, affirmed the positive values of the culture and democratic institutions, advocated religious liberty and a vigorous lay apostolate of social reform. Its public style, which he calls "republican," stressed dialogue, mediation, compromise, and gradualism; it was incarnational more than countercultural, grounded in the lay experience of work, family, and politics. It was also rooted, I would add, in the European church’s struggles with liberty, the Enlightenment, totalitarianism, and secularization that formed the background to Vatican II.

The Catholic left, O’Brien explains, was born out of liberal Catholicism but quite consciously defined itself over against it. "The use of the phrase left," he writes, "raises the question: left of what? The Catholic left emerging from the sixties had a ready answer: left of liberal Catholicism." Race and Vietnam were the catalytic issues, and as John McGreevy has noted in his book Parish Boundaries (University of Chicago Press, 1996), the militant stances developed on those fronts soon worked their way into internal church conflicts. O’Brien describes the Catholic left’s style as evangelical, measuring society, culture, or the church starkly against gospel standards and pressing directly to repair the resulting contrast, and with, I would add, a grudging attention to compromise, incrementalism, or extended analysis and debate. The Catholic left is an offspring of liberal Catholicism, but rooted in the dramatic appeals and confrontational styles of the 1960s and linked much more closely to third-world liberation movements than to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century European experiences. Although lay radicals have always been prominent in the leadership of the Catholic left, a major base for its activities has been members of religious orders.

O’Brien sees liberal Catholicism as feeling the effects of the shift in secular liberalism that I already described, of the conservative attack on liberal social programs, of the decline of broad-based social movements like those for peace and civil rights, of the vulnerability of the labor movement.

As for the Catholic left, O’Brien sees it suffering from the marginalization and sectarianism that he considers inherent to the evangelical style and which became more dominant as its links with liberalism were severed. The Catholic left has maintained less and less purchase on the larger public debates, and it has increasingly focused on internal church conflicts. "In public perception, the Catholic left is defined increasingly by positions on women’s ordination, clerical celibacy, homosexuality, and abortion, all linked to the larger question of papal teaching authority," he writes, and this perception is amply reinforced by the volume in which his essay appears. The contributions on those topics are militant and focused, while questions of race, economics, international affairs, and general culture are dealt with diffidently or not at all.

With those distinctions in mind, much of the rest of my remarks will be directed toward the problems internal to liberal Catholicism and also to the Catholic left. These are not unrelated to the external pressures and hostility. But there is much less we can do about that. I want to organize my reflections under three headings: a crisis of irony, a crisis of intellect, and a crisis of inclusiveness. Each crisis implies a turning, a moment of decision, a choice of direction, both within each of the two camps and in their stances toward one another.

• The Crisis of Irony. The word, of course, stems from the Greek for "dissembling," and as a concept it entered into Western tradition largely in association with Socrates and with Plato’s portrait of his mentor’s feigned ignorance, self-deprecating pose, and slyly mocking praise of his interlocutors.

If I return to my faithful American Heritage Dictionary, "irony," I find there, is "the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning," and the "incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs." An ironic sense, then, alerts the mind to the difference between words and meaning, between appearance and reality. Reality is never of a simple piece; it has cracks and flaws and strange twists and ambiguous shadows—all most likely where we least expect them. Irony teaches us that there are seldom gains without losses. It prepares us for what social science likes to call "unanticipated consequences" and the gap between "manifest and latent functions." The awareness of countercurrents just below the surface puts us on guard against exaggerated and one-sided enthusiasms. Irony is an equilibrating impulse.

Irony is also, like Socrates, mischievous. It pricks inflated notions and causes and persons with the knowledge that none of them are quite what they imagine themselves to be—or, more to the point, none of us. On the stage, the playwright’s familiar stratagem of dramatic irony lets the audience in on a secret that is unknown to the characters and in fact gives to the characters’ words and deeds a meaning quite different from-maybe even opposite to-the one they themselves take for granted. A sense of irony warns us that we, too, may well be in the position of those characters, playing out a script other than the one we benignly or smugly suppose.

Liberal Catholicism has not been devoid of a sense of irony. But somewhere in the passage from 1968 to 1978, in the years of Pope Paul VI after Humanae vitae and of Richard Nixon before and after Watergate, and somewhere in the passage from liberal Catholicism to the Catholic left, irony seemed to disappear and a rather deadly earnestness took over. Many of the new recruits to the ranks of liberal Catholicism and the Catholic left changed their thoughts but not their way of thinking. A postconciliar triumphalism too often became the order of the day, with naysayers, doubters, and skeptics dismissed, ignored, or condemned as unspeakable reactionaries. Many sixties and postsixties movements of political and personal liberation were seized upon with no more than minor reservations. New therapeutic and spiritual practices replaced old devotions with a remarkable rapidity and parallel fervor. This was also the era that inspired the now well-worn quip about the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist—that you could negotiate with a terrorist.

That wisecrack itself demonstrates that not everything escaped the ironical gaze or the skeptical comment. But that balking tended to be private and unofficial; publicly, it was muted by constant evocations of the bad old days and a fear that open criticism of others would only give ammunition to their conservative persecutors.

There are many reasons why the century now ending has been called the Age of Irony. Chief among them has been the collapse of so many utopian dreams into horrible nightmares. The war to end all wars became a bloody no man’s land of trenches and the seedbed of a still greater conflict. The revolution to end all class conflict became the generator of show trials and prison camps on an unprecedented scale. Less messianic movements to redress wrongs were more successful but seldom escaped bureaucratic degeneration, squinted vision, and pitiful squabbling. There is scarcely a banner under which the nineteenth century believed the world was so proudly marching toward progress—not science, not literature, not economic growth, not capitalism, socialism, or democracy—that doesn’t bear some self-inflicted stains and tatters.

Is it a lingering consequence of Catholicism’s long-imposed isolation from modernity that liberal Catholicism and the Catholic left can sometimes exhibit so much innocence of this disillusioning history? It is legitimate for us to have sharpened the tools of the hermeneutic of suspicion, but we cannot wield them selectively. A sense of irony opens space for self-criticism in reviewing the results, planned and unanticipated, of postconciliar changes within the church and of the various postsixties quests for personal emancipation.

I recognize the danger in what I am saying. Genuine irony is not mockery, world-weariness, or sneering superiority à la David Letterman. Irony should not be reduced, as it often is in academia, to a reflex iconoclasm or a stylish tic. Irony should not become a way station to cynicism or nihilism. For the Christian, moreover, irony is not the ultimate attitude. We know that death and absurdity, however triumphant they may appear on every side, are not the last word. Irony simply keeps us from knowing this too easily, too facilely, because in that case we would not really know it at all.

Christians must go beyond irony, but we must pass through it, not skirt it. It is something we must share with this age, along with its joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties.  

• The Crisis of Intellect. A sociologist, I think, would find that Catholic intellectuals and Catholic scholars are by and large liberal or to the left. That does not mean, however, that liberal Catholicism or the Catholic left is either intellectual or scholarly. It is my impression, debatable of course, that the activism of the postconciliar period, combined with the therapeutic turn in the culture, has produced its own form of anti-intellectualism. Liberal Catholicism has not been unaffected, and the Catholic left has been especially vulnerable.

A few years ago, it was startling to compare the lists of a liberal or left publishing house like Sheed and Ward and a conservative one like Ignatius Press. The latter had its share of harsh polemics and sentimental piety but it also had a core of theological classics and current conservative scholarship. The former, while blessedly short of outright polemics and rich in a kind of popular to mid-level guide to personal spirituality, was extremely light on serious scholarship. To say these things is to immediately think of exceptions, outstanding scholarly works and vital intellectual probes by individuals associated with either liberal Catholicism or the Catholic left. Feminist theology has been extraordinarily outstanding in this regard. But I am left with the impression that, in wider circles, even this work is received and deployed in a utilitarian manner. It is not grappled with, questioned, assimilated, but cited as authority for pre-existing causes. Some people invoke the pope or Cardinal Ratzinger; other people invoke Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza or John Boswell. We want ammunition, not ideas.

The crisis of intellect, I must add, has deeper roots than anything so easy to cure as laziness or dereliction of duty. One of those roots is the valuable recognition and elevation of experience as a starting point for religious reflection-but often enough as the ending point as well. Whether the issues arethose of sexual morality and family or of poverty, crime, racial inequities, economic structures, or international relations, certainly on the Catholic left and to a considerable extent within liberal Catholicism, personal experience, witness, and testimony have become the dominant mode of approaching issues. Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking is a superb example of this mode. In the normal run of examples, sincerity and personal sacrifice are in the foreground; systematic analysis of causes and effects, of underlying principles, of relationships to a web of other evidence, or to a heritage of theory, doctrine, and wisdom is at best implied, at worst actually derided as irrelevant abstraction.

The other root of the crisis of intellect that I would mention is the party spirit rampant not among average churchgoing Catholics but among the active and vocal elites. The work of the intellect requires a curiosity, generosity, playfulness, and candor that an atmosphere of fear and suspicion scarcely allows. In such an atmosphere, to dissent is to betray. Ideas are reduced to motives. Responsibility for this situation can hardly be laid at the doorstep of liberal Catholicism and the Catholic left but neither should we pretend only to be victims.

Party spirit may also be an underlying reason why liberal Catholicism has failed to match its understandable concern for preserving academic freedom in Catholic colleges and universities with any comparable passion about preserving the distinctive mission and character of these institutions as places where Catholic thought, art, literature, perspectives on society, and reflections on science could be freely pursued at a depth unlikely to occur in secular institutions.

• The Crisis of Inclusiveness. It may seem strange to talk about a crisis of inclusiveness. Inclusiveness is a byword of the Catholic left and certainly has good standing in liberal Catholicism. Is anyone against inclusiveness? Could anyone be against inclusiveness? Well, that is where the crisis is. Inclusiveness has become a cant word and, incidentally, one charged with political leverage. Judging from the book What’s Left?, battles over who’s inclusive and who isn’t have haunted the internal life of many Catholic left groups. The problem is that inclusiveness is a concept that loses meaning apart from some sense of specified and bounded identity. Inclusive in what? At least among finite beings, inclusiveness implies exclusiveness. We should not be surprised when some groups flying the banner of inclusiveness are extraordinarily exclusive of those they consider insufficiently inclusive.

The Catholic left faces great challenges regarding inclusiveness. Some elements of it or closely associated with it have presented themselves explicitly as post-Christian. Other elements pretty clearly favor forms of Christianity that reject constitutive elements of Catholicism. The situation is complicated, of course, because these groups, like all others, are not necessarily stable. Leadership changes, and so do emphases and guiding statements. I remember conducting a joint interview a few years ago with two prominent members of WomenChurch. Both leaders as well as the organization are identified with the Catholic left. One, a thoroughly sophisticated theologian, described the organization in terms that were quite frankly post-Christian and involved a radical shift away from a male savior. The other described a movement that merely wanted some heightening and emphasis on feminine figures, elements, and themes well represented in the tradition. I looked from one to the other. Was this the good cop/bad cop routine? Did they hear the differences in what they were saying? I asked them, but to little avail. Similarly, when I hear a speaker on a panel at a Call to Action meeting denounce the very idea of episcopacy and the audience burst into applause: How seriously am I to take this? Does what is being said equal what is being advocated? Or is this only an expression of free-floating dissatisfaction with church authorities? How much do the Call to Action participants or organizers pay attention to these matters? Liberal Catholicism, having undergone a history of repeated condemnation, has an understandable fear of insisting on sharp boundaries. There is a decided impulse to close one’s eyes to developments that may pose uncomfortable choices. Better to emphasize the good intentions and not look too closely at the details. Yet this response has seriously hampered efforts to clarify and maintain any distinctive Catholic identity. Isn’t that, after all, a task we can leave to church authorities, whom we will then feel free to criticize?

This valuing of inclusiveness at the expense of identity is odd in two respects. First, it comes at a time when celebration and preservation of identity have been claimed by many oppressed groups as an aspect of human dignity. Second, it comes at a time in which Catholics no longer consign non-Catholics, theologically or socially, to some outer hell. More than that: It is commonly recognized that non-Catholic forms of Christianity and even non-Christian religions, whatever their shortcomings in the fullness of faith, may have very well kept vital, through a special emphasis, aspects of revelation that have become obscured or neglected in Catholic Christianity. Thus the Calvinist emphasis on God’s sovereignty and the Word, the Lutheran emphasis on unmerited grace and the dangers of works-righteousness. The insight can be extended to aspects of Islam, Buddhism, or for that matter the Enlightenment. It is not facetious to say that they have, at times, been more Catholic than the pope. One may hope that this readiness to value what is on the other side of boundaries might relieve the pressure about indicating boundaries at all.

Liberal Catholicism and the Catholic left must reject a kind of theological promiscuity, in which anyone subject to disciplinary action by a bishop or Rome is automatically promoted to hero status and his or her work or deeds exempted from critical scrutiny. I do not think any position on church authority, sacrament, or morality should be excluded from discussion. But the discussion must be a real one in which time, knowledge, and atmosphere are sufficient to allow the explorations of those positions in relationship to the Catholic tradition in its fullness. A rally is not a discussion, and liberal theologians, scholars, and leaders obscure the difference when they lend their credentials and participation to events where a grab bag of positions claim Catholic status without engaging in that kind of conversation.

The crisis of inclusiveness will be met when liberal Catholics are unembarrassed about gently, generously, but clearly insisting on the defining marks of Catholicism, and on disciplined, respectful, learned, and prayerful discussion when questions are raised, as questions will be and should be raised, about how to understand those defining marks.

Despite my efforts to distinguish between liberal Catholicism and the Catholic left, I have spoken of these crises with rather random reference to both. Earlier I suggested that each camp would have to meet these crises in its own way and would also have to clarify and be more frank about its relationship with the other camp.

I speak of course from within liberal Catholicism, the subject of today’s event. David O’Brien believes that liberal Catholicism and the Catholic left need a renewed alliance. In terms of his major concern, the social and political activism of the sort that dealt primarily with questions of economics and race, he could be right. But as O’Brien states and the book What’s Left? amply illustrates, the Catholic left increasingly is defined by internal church questions of gender, sexuality, ecclesiology, worship, and spirituality, a near rejection of hierarchy, and a consistently political style of lobbying and mobilization organized around the demands of various special constituencies rather than by any sense of the whole. If one were to name concrete objectives—for example, regarding women in the church, collaborative decision making, a rethinking of sexuality—one might conclude that they are broadly shared by this Catholic left and liberal Catholicism. If one looks to fundamental convictions and attitudes in a larger sense, however, I believe that the gap between the camps is actually growing. In practice, many liberal Catholics recognize this and go their own way, taking much more moderate positions, but without articulating any public criticism of the Catholic left. I question whether liberal Catholicism can maintain this discreet silence. One turning point, one decision, nestled in the three I have described, involves liberal Catholicism’s willingness not only to criticize itself but forthrightly to call the Catholic left to account.

I am not discouraged about these crises internal to liberal Catholicism. Already I see a greater willingness to acknowledge the ironies of postconciliar developments. The welcome given to Charles Morris’s American Catholic (Times Books, 1997), an account of the dramatic past and stormy present of the American church that decidedly escaped party lines. Saying Amen: A Mystagogy of the Sacraments (Liturgy Training Publications, 1999), Kathleen Hughes’s recent book on the liturgy, excerpted in Church magazine, is both serene and unblinking in setting forth many of the unanticipated twists and turns of liturgical renewal. There are any number of initiatives on the intellectual and scholarly front: journals, conferences (most of which appear to feature Cardinal George), new institutes, Catholic studies programs, publishing efforts. Much of this energy could be diverted into squabbling and bitterness provoked by a heavy-handed or hypocritical resolution of the debate about implementing Ex corde ecclesiae, but I pray that won’t occur. About the question of inclusiveness I feel less certain. It is on the one hand fundamental and on the other the most wrenching of close ties and solidarities.

Why does it matter? Not long ago I came across some notes from an interview I had with Gustavo Gutiérrez, usually viewed as the founding father of liberation theology. "I don’t believe in liberation theology," Father Gutiérrez said. "I believe in Jesus Christ." Let me take my cue from him. I don’t believe in liberal Catholicism. I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

But I would argue that insofar as we can humanly tell, liberal Catholicism is essential to the flourishing of that church in the United States and, I believe, in the rest of the world. I don’t deny the need for currents in the church that emphasize preservation and the risks of change or currents of either right or left that call for prophetic confrontation and sectarian witness. But if the church is to remain a healthy organism it needs the self-criticism, open inquiry, and spirit of dialogue that liberal Catholicism has provided.

What are some of the developments the church must address in the new millennium?

- The world-historical change in control of fertility and in the relations between men and women and in the meaning of both sexuality and the inherited language and imagery of religion.

- The extension of scientific knowledge and technological control over genes and the mind.

- Entirely new relations between world religions.

- The modern quantum leap in historical consciousness and cultural pluralism.

- A worldwide revolution of individual freedom and democracy.

Will Catholic Christianity persuade the world that the key to making these developments serve life rather than death is the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ and the sacramental life of the Spirit lived in the community of his disciples? Not from behind barred gates or armed ramparts. Not from a stance that refuses to acknowledge change, that tries to evade historical consciousness, that pits itself against pluralism, freedom, and democracy. If, once again, there is no liberal Catholicism, due to hierarchical repression, internal disintegration, or the combination of both, we will undoubtedly, as so often before and at such a high price, reinvent it.


More from the Commonweal forum "The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism":
Introduction, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels
How Liberalism Fails the Church, by Cardinal Francis George
Liberalism Doesn't Exist, by John T. Noonan
An Exhausted Project? by John T. McGreevy
We're All Liberals Now, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.